Sunday, October 10, 2010

Thought for Lech Lecha: The Hardest Part of Aliyah - the Mental Part

Lech Lecha is obviously the call to come. Can any Jew living in the Diaspora today not hear the words of God's call to Avram to come to the Holy Land as anything less than a personal invitation? (I know, they can, but I can dream, can't I?)
For a good few years I heard the call, personally. It was a challenge - daunting and frightening. I knew the words. I knew the commandment. I knew what I was supposed to do. And yet I stayed, mostly because I was afraid.
What would I do? How could I leave my job? Would I be able to support my family? How could we knowingly give up good jobs in America for the unknown of Israel.
All very real fears. And in the United States, legitimate fears as well. Therein lie the problem: as Americans, we're by nature culturally American, fully integrated into a mentality that requires long-term planning and foresight; a sense of confidence and sureness about the future; a need to know and be ready for the future long before it happens. How do we overcome our own fears as we contemplate fulfilling not only the wishes of the Torah, but our own dreams? I think we can find one possible answer at the opening to Parshat Lech Lecha.
Many commentaries focus on the order in which God commands Avram to leave his homeland of Haran:
לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee.
Logically speaking, first he should leave his father's house, then his birthplace, and then his country. Why does God seemingly reverse the order?
I edit the weekly parshah sheet at Orot, and saw a beautiful thought written by a student named Tali Richter in the name of Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin, who wrote that the Hasidic masters taught that "a person can be found where his thoughts lead him." If, during davening at shul he's thinking about his business, then he's really not at shul, is he? When God told Avram to leave Haran, aside from the commandment to leave physically, God also commanded him to abandon his foreign mentality. Thus, the order makes perfect sense: first one must leave his land - his national culture and mode of thinking, before he can leave his birthplace and his home.

I remember a number of years back when we started doing shul programming together with the members of the Kollel Torah Mitzion, obviously from Israel. They would call me up and tell me, "Rabbi, we want to run a Shabbaton in your shul."
"Sure," I said. "No problem. When do you want to do it?"
"We were thinking about next week."
It took me years to get it into their heads that there was no way we would, or even could run a Shabbaton with a week's notice. What about advertising? Could we get volunteers to help with the food? The social hall might very well be booked. We planned the shul calendar months in advance - and I know of many that plan their entire year in the summer. That's not silly. It's just good advance planning. Very, very American.
And yet, I'm pretty sure that the Israelis thought that we were crazy. Really? Two months in advance? Why do you need that much notice? Just send out an email, put up a cholent, and we'll have a Shabbaton.
Now, looking back, I realize that they weren't wrong. We were just speaking two very different cultural languages. Israelis think nothing of throwing a program together in a night. Many schools don't really have their finalized timetable for the school year until well after Sukkot. (OK, that one can get frustrating.) It's just part of the mentality, of being open to doing things quickly, making abrupt changes, and not needing to have solid, long-term plans.
That's what God told Avram: In order to leave Haran and make aliyah to the Holy Land, you first need to leave the mentality of your homeland. In Avram's case, his homeland was mired in a culture of idolatry and polytheism. In our case today, we're stuck in a culture of absolutes; of self-reliance and self-dependence that leaves no room for faith and nothing up to God. We need to know. We need to be sure.
Well, that's not how it works here. Kids in high school have no idea what career path they want to choose, and they usually don't even want to think about the topic. They've got army to worry about, yeshiva to attend. Shuls and organizations think nothing of planning an event for...this evening. And people come. And even people who live here leave their jobs for one reason or another before they've got a sure thing - to go back to school, to learn Torah for a year, to take care of their children - and that's not unusual or unreasonable.
Something will happen. Hakadosh baruch hu will provide. And He does.
But the first change, and probably the hardest, is the needed change in mentality that makes everything else possible.
So many people on the precipice of aliyah ask themselves, "Am I crazy?" Truthfully, to Americans, the answer is probably "yes." But to Israelis, don't worry. You're perfectly normal.